Common Snowberry

Symphoricarpos albus

Species distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Cluster of round white berries with spongy flesh
  • Short clusters of pink, bell-shaped flowers at ends of twigs
  • Woody shrub with slender opposite twigs
  • Thin, oval leaves arranged in pairs on opposite sides of stems
  • Often grows in large patches

Family Characteristics: 

  • Mostly woody plants (shrubs, small trees, or vines)
  • Opposite leaves
  • Flowers and berries appear in pairs
  • Flowers with 5 (or 4) petals united into a tube
  • Fruit is a fleshy berry with remains of calyx attached
  • Pithy stems

Growth habitat: 

Deciduous woody shrub, 0.5-2 m tall, with erect and spreading branches.  Grows into dense colonies from rhizomes.

Leaves and stems: 

Hairless woody stems branch into opposite, fine, slender twigs.  Leaves, 2-5 cm long, are short-stalked and are attached to twigs in opposite pairs.  Leaves are pale green, thin, and sparsely hairy on the underside.  Leaves of older stems are oval with entire to slightly wavy margins.  Leaves on fast-growing, young shoots are irregularly lobed and slightly larger.

Bark: 

Yellowish-brown bark on young shoots.  Bark on stems and twigs is grayish-brown and scaly or split lengthwise on older shoots.

Flowers: 

Pale to bright pink (occasionally white) flowers attach by short stalks in clusters of up to 17 flowers at the ends of twigs, or occasionally borne singly in leaf joints.  Flowers, 4–10 mm long and roughly as wide, are round and bell-shaped with petals joined from the base to the lower half of the plant, and then separate into 5 short, pointed lobes.  The flower tubes are swollen on one side (due to the presence of a single nectar gland) and have a dense network of fine white hairs inside.  Styles (tubular portion of a female organ), 2–3 mm long, are hairless and do not protrude beyond the mouth of the flower.

Seeds: 

Showy clusters of waxy, white, round berries at stem tips.  Berries, 0.5–1.5 cm long, are spongy when squeezed and have 2 white, flattened, oval seeds surrounded by a pulpy flesh.

Habitat preferences: 

Moist to dry, well-drained soils of open forests, thickets, openings, rocky slopes, riparian areas, and meadows at low to subalpine elevations.  Prefers full sun or partial shade. 

Interesting facts: 

The berries persist through the winter and are eaten by chipmunks (Tamias spp.) and other rodents, black bears (Ursus americanus), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), and wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo).   Livestock and wild ungulates, including white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), and occasionally elk (Cervus elaphus) and moose (Alces alces) browse common snowberry bushes.  Small mammals and small birds use common snowberry thickets as cover. 

For humans, the berries are bitter and mildly emetic, and will cause vomiting, dizziness and/or sedation when eaten in large quantities.  Native American tribes may have eaten dried (on occasion, fresh) berries as food, but the berries were often considered starvation food, food for ghosts, or food for the dead.  The presence of saponins, compounds that produce foam, in the berries have led their use as a hair shampoo and a fish toxin.  A poultice made from crushed or chewed leaves, bark, and/or berries can be used to heal sores and wounds.  A tea made from the astringent leaves was used to relieve sore eyes and clusters of the brushy twigs were used as brooms by the Blackfoot people.    

Common snowberry’s tolerance of soils with low fertility, resistance to fire and browsing, and ability to sprout from its rhizomes make it an ideal candidate for restoration of disturbed areas.  It can be planted for erosion control, bank stabilization in riparian areas, and assistance in the reclamation of mine tailings.

Biological Classification: